Washington Report: No Foul, but Was There Any Harm?

 - October 8, 2007, 10:41 AM

After investigating an allegation that the FAA destroyed an audiotape of six New York Center controllers’ accounts of the 9/11 attacks, Transportation inspector general Kenneth Mead said he found no indication that the FAA intentionally withheld information.

But he said that the destruction of evidence in the government’s possession–particularly during times of national crisis–has the effect of fostering an appearance that information is being withheld from the public.

“We do not ascribe motivations to the managers in this case of attempting to cover up, and we have no indication there was anything on the tape that would lead anyone to conclude that they had something to hide or that the controllers did not properly carry out their duties on September 11,” Mead wrote in a report to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “The actions of these managers, particularly the quality-assurance manager, nonetheless, do little to dispel such appearances. Their actions did not, in our view, serve the interests of the FAA, [transportation] department or public.”

McCain asked Mead to examine the FAA’s responsiveness in complying with the requests of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks (widely known as the 9/11 Commission) for agency documents and other materials. The commission learned of the tape, and its alleged destruction, during its interviews of New York Center personnel between last September and October.

Mead said his office found that miscommunications and misunderstandings led to concerns that the FAA had not been thorough enough in its production of materials pursuant to the commission’s requests.

According to the DOT IG, a single cassette tape was made at the center on 9/11–beginning around 11:40 a.m. and lasting about an hour–of controllers giving first-hand accounts of their actions in interacting with, or tracking, two of the hijacked aircraft that morning. Six controllers gave witness statements, each approximately five to 10 minutes long.

The center manager, who directed the taping, said he did so because he wanted a contemporaneous record of controller accounts to be available immediately for law enforcement. He told Mead’s investigators he was concerned that controllers would take stress-induced sick leave and thus be unavailable to provide conventional witness statements in a timely manner. As part of an agreement with the local controllers’ union president, the center manager told the local president that the controllers could use their taped statements to assist in preparing their written statements.

But one controller said that when she asked to listen to the tape in preparing
her written statement, the quality-assurance manager told her that the tape was not meant for anyone to hear. “We were told that nobody ever listened to, transcribed or duplicated the tape,” Mead reported.

Before the taping, the center manager agreed to the local union president’s condition that any tapes be temporary and destroyed once standard written witness statements were made. It is certainly plausible that the taping would not have occurred without the center manager’s agreement to the union that the tape be destroyed, Mead said.

After the taping, the quality-assurance manager, as custodian of the tape, separately committed to the union that he would “get rid of” the tape. Mead reported that the tape was subsequently destroyed by the quality-assurance manager, acting on his own initiative, between December 2001 and February 2002.

Neither manager informed FAA regional or headquarters authorities of the tape’s existence or their separate agreements to destroy it. Mead’s staff found no one from outside the center, including former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, knew of the existence or destruction of the tape until the commission’s probe. The IG said that under FAA policy, and as supported by air-traffic policy experts at FAA headquarters, the tape should have been considered an original record and retained for five years.

Mead told McCain that it reflects poorly on the judgment and decision-making of the quality-assurance manager that, while unaware of the center manager’s agreement to the union’s stipulation that the tape be destroyed, he destroyed the tape on his own.

The tape destruction occurred despite a Sept. 14, 2001 e-mail from the FAA’s Eastern Region headquarters directing that data and records from September 11 be retained. “If a question arises whether or not you should retain data, RETAIN IT,” the message said.

Last month, the FAA said the quality-assurance manager was suspended for 20 days without pay. No disciplinary action was taken against the manager of New York Center who directed the taping.

Mead said that no one will ever know for certain the content of the tape or its intrinsic value, nor be able to compare the audiotaped statements with the controllers’ written witness statements–one of which was prepared three weeks later–for purposes of ensuring completeness.

“Though technical details of the hijacked flights are well known based on ATC radar data and pilot-controller radio communications,” Mead told McCain, “what those six controllers recounted on September 11, in their own voices, about what transpired that morning, is no longer available to assist any investigation or inform the public.”